Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

One Eye on the Fire

  

 

Standing barefoot and very still, Janice felt the currents running deep beneath the city spill their banks. It was early March, the vindictive end of winter; the land beneath was quick and unstable. The ground flushed and shifted, the apartment building settled, Janice gripped the flooring with her toes. To the south, near Canal Street, Saint Alphonsus church was sinking, its ruined portico washed with light.

 

There is some justice in it, Janice thought, as she raised herself on one leg, then the other, onto her toes. There is some justice in knowing that the ground under your feet is full of currents. She needed only to take a handful of Kay’s small, intricately faceted crystals and set them on the floor, one by one, and they would roll in all directions on their own. Kay’s crystals lay here and there along the edges of the rooms, small signal fires on the uncertain terrain. Janice concentrated on her breathing, on stillness and balance.

 

She lowered her heels to the floor and went from room to room, shutting the lights and chain-locking the door. A siren wailed across Spring Street, a tear in the background noise of the city. An ambulance, a police car; some spooky interior alarm of her own. Searching the top of the refrigerator with the flat of her hand, Janice located the bottle of whiskey and brought a carefully measured shot to her bedroom. She put the glass on the floor and took off her clothes, letting them lie where they fell. With one swift movement she was under the covers, shivering and taking long breaths, until her body heat began to warm her.

 

Her eyes adjusted to a darkness that in the city was never dark; it was sulfuric, fluorescent, neon, incandescent. I am here in this city, Janice thought. It is only that it is like something you are caught up in and you are pulled along. The city was darkness and coldness, lights burning at 3 a.m., human voices on the radio, open windows, soot falling from a clear sky, the blast of a car horn searing the air, a catch in your footstep and whatever you held in your hand fluttering to the ground, the startled flight of pigeons from a rooftop.

 

The telephone rang. Janice lifted the receiver. “Hello?” she said. “Vera. A party. Seventy-eighth Street. I just got into bed. I couldn’t imagine it.” Her feet touching the cold floor, putting on her clothes, conversations across a room, someone laughing. “We’d probably find a cabbie from out of town and get lost.”

 

“Never mind, love,” Vera spoke through the telephone wire. “You can’t get lost on these streets, they’re one big grid. Throw something on and I’ll meet you in ten minutes. You’ll be irresistible.” Vera’s voice was controlled, seductive. She had lived in the city many more years than Janice. Janice almost gave in to the possibilities on 78th Street that lay in Vera’s voice.

 

Janice sighed. She was warm now under the covers. Her legs slanted downward, like a divining rod. She pointed her toes.

 

“You’re spending the best years of your life in bed,” Vera said. “Alone.”

 

Janice was silent.

 

“How long has it been since you’ve been out of your apartment?” Vera said. Her voice had changed; she was no longer trying to humor Janice.

 

“I don’t know,” Janice said. “Two weeks, maybe three.” She sat up to a slight vertigo, a stab of light behind her eyes.

 

There was a click on the line. A muscle jumped in Janice’s leg; Vera breathed on the other end of the wire.

 

The line clicked again. The operator cut in. “You have a call from a Kay Bridges,” the operator said. “Will you accept?”

 

“Kay. Kay,” Janice said.

 

“Hang up, please.” The operator’s voice was tinny, unclear.

 

Janice said, “Vera, I’ll speak to you later.” She put the receiver down and waited.

 

Kay was already speaking when Janice answered the phone, in a high, broken whisper, the beginning of a keen. “Janice, something happened—I’ve hurt myself.”

 

Janice swung her legs onto the floor and stood up, trying to find her footing. “Where are you?” she said. Through the receiver, the sound of traffic was close.

 

“Not far. I’ll hail a cab,” Kay said. “You mustn’t tell anyone. Not a soul.” Janice heard the receiver click down.

 

In the darkness the apartment looked shadowy and chaotic. Water trickled through a pipe. Sometime during the winter Janice had stopped dancing with the troupe that performed in a loft on Broome Street. She had been in bed for a month. She said it was her back, something easy to explain. She tried to remember the last time she had seen Kay. It was at a street festival in the Village, in the summer; Kay wore a blouse with yellow suns on it. She didn’t live in her loft on Spring Street anymore. Janice missed her. At the festival Kay had smiled at her absently, not recognizing her, and turned away, toward some bright thing, a light, a flash of silver on a juggler’s arm.

 

Janice circled through the apartment. The sparely furnished rooms held Vera’s watercolor of a woman in a linen dress, shielding her eyes from the sun, in a frame on a wall; a string of topaz beads draped over a chair; an etched pair of wine glasses on a windowsill; a Moorish tile; a carved oak table reclaimed from the street. On the table, in a muted rainbow of color, lay some of the gifts that Kay had given her: a pair of pastel gloves, diamond-patterned tights, a violet ribbon for her hair. Janice decided to clear a space for Kay and whatever it was she was bringing with her. She held the gloves up to the night light. Her hands shook. In the end she left everything where it was.

 

She put on boots and clothing, austere, clean-lined slacks and a shirt against Kay’s arrival, realizing that she had no idea—had been afraid to ask, or too polite—where Kay had been hurt or how: a mugger’s knife; a terrible fall; an accident in a cab. In this city, Janice thought, we are embarrassed when it finds us, as if eluding it were a matter of will or luck. House keys in hand, she shut the apartment door behind her and went down the stairs to meet Kay.

 

Kay emerged from a cab as Janice reached the front steps. Janice paid the cabbie and looked cautiously at Kay. She was pale and shaking slightly; no evidence showed. Janice put her arm around Kay’s waist. Kay leaned against her and they walked together up the steps.

 

In the hallway of Janice’s apartment Kay hid her face in her hands. Her keening was soft and high. “They took away my phone,” she said. “I had to go to a phone booth on Second Avenue to call you.” She took quick, shallow breaths, crying. The wide sleeves of her coat fell upward on her arms, revealing the dark rags tied around her wrists. Kay cried unsteadily as Janice held her. Her unruly plum-black hair smelled of wild roses.

 

Janice led Kay into the kitchen and turned on the overhead light. Her eyes teared in the sudden brightness. Kay eased her arms out of her coat. She was dressed in a stunning assortment of clothes, cloth on cloth: a black skirt over dancer’s tights, a vermillion sweater and embroidered vest; mismatched socks folded over boots wrapped in fur, necklaces of cinnabar and jet. Her arms, held close to her body, were hidden under an indigo shawl. Janice remembered the way Kay used to punctuate her sentences with them, and the extravagant movement of her shoulders that was like a comment of her hands.

 

Kay sat familiarly at the table. This was her old territory, where she and Janice used to share cartons of take-out Indian food and drink strong tea; pass a joint between them, after a party, over glasses of iced water, Kay’s cure for a hangover; get ready on a Saturday morning for the flea market on Canal Street, Kay counting cash from all the places she had found it in her loft, Janice stuffing five-dollar bills into the pockets of her jeans. Kay blinked in the overhead light and searched through her large cloth bag. The rags were wrapped tightly around her wrists. Her movements were slow, lazy, as if she were awakening from sleep. She handed Janice a tortoise-shell comb. Janice recognized the comb from the flea market. On it Kay had pasted a pattern of beads and Austrian glass. Janice gathered her hair up loosely and held it with the comb. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror over the sink.

 

“It’s beautiful, Kay,” Janice said.

 

“It looks great in your hair.”

 

Kay blew her nose. Her dark eyes were large, the pupils dilated. “You won’t take me to the hospital? They’ll lock me up and pump me full of Thorazine. God, what have I done?” She was crying again as she began to unwrap the rags.

 

Janice turned her back to the table and busied herself fixing tea. She set down a jar of molasses and two steaming mugs. The rags from Kay’s wrists piled up on the floor, patterned in dark arterial blood.

 

Kay searched through her cloth bag, then threw it down on the table. “Well, it’s not here,” she said. Her voice was slow and aimless.

 

“What?” Janice said.

 

“I don’t know,” Kay said. She blew her nose. “Do you have any peroxide?”

 

Soon the table held a box of cotton balls, a bottle of peroxide, and Kay’s naked wrists, the cuts long and straight, the pink-red flesh turned outward from the cuts like the petals of a poisonous flower. Janice divined the pulse in the wounds, the quickness of Kay’s heartbeat, the deep waiting terror that had been exposed by the blade.

 

“So there it is,” Kay said. She looked blankly at her wrists.

 

Janice fled to the living room and lay stiffly on the couch, trying to find an anchor there. The rooms were freshly painted, whitewashed. She was off balance, lightheaded. Her face and throat were hot. Her anger at Kay had come on suddenly, like a fever; it had taken her by surprise.

 

“What are you doing?” Kay’s voice was becoming clearer; there was a low hum under it.

 

“I felt faint all of a sudden,” Janice said.

 

“The bleeding has almost stopped on one arm, but I could use some more rags for the other. Take a look, will you?”

 

Janice walked unsteadily into the kitchen. Kay offered up her wrists.

 

“How could you do that to yourself?” Janice said. “How, how could you—?”

 

“I took a lot of Valiums,” Kay replied. “Then I turned off the lights and got into bed. I was afraid to close my eyes. I lay in the dark asking myself, ‘Will I die of these cuts or will I die of an overdose?’ I think the pills slowed down the bleeding, though. Then I realized I didn’t want to die, I just want everything to ease up. So I panicked. But I didn’t have any Valiums left.” Kay studied her wounded wrists.

 

“I’ll get you some clean rags.”

 

“Take a look, will you? Maybe I won’t need any.”

 

“I’ll find some rags, but please don’t ask me to look at your wrists.” Janice was tormented by Kay’s wrists.

 

She found a man’s white shirt in her dresser drawer, bit off the buttons, and ripped the shirt into long strips.

 

Kay wrapped the rags delicately around her wrists. “Do you have a needle and thread?” she said. “I could sterilize the needle and take butterfly stitches. It will only take a minute.”

 

Janice lay on the couch again. It wasn’t just the idea of Kay stitching up her wrists, those hands working hard at healing their own damage. It was Kay, bleeding and probably in shock, whose hands needed to work. Janice had never seen them at rest. Kay would come to Janice’s apartment, her indigo shawl tied around her waist, carrying a bouquet of silk flowers. With fine, quick movements, she caressed a petal here, and there, and the flowers bloomed under her hands. At Kay’s loft, before she had to give it up and Janice lost her to rumors of a basement apartment on the Lower East Side, she surrounded herself with brocades and silks that her hands transformed into fringed shawls, furred hats, and velvet bags trimmed with beads and rhinestones. Some afternoons, after dance practice, Janice would go to Kay’s loft and they would smoke joints together and listen to Mozart’s piano sonatas while Kay worked. This is how Janice remembered Kay, before she lost her.

 

“I’m going to call a doctor friend of mine,” Janice told her from the couch.

 

“I’m not going to the hospital,” Kay said. “They’ll think I’m crazy. They’ll lock me up. My landlord’s been trying to get rid of me for months. I spent all my money on supplies, but I can’t make art anymore.” She tried to laugh. “I don’t know what happened. Everything is so bright and awful sometimes.”

 

Janice stood with great effort and leaned against the doorframe. Under the kitchen light Kay’s skin was white, washed out-looking. There were purple half-circles under her eyes. “Tell your doctor friend—” Kay said. Janice shut the kitchen light. For a moment all was darkness; Janice could hear Kay’s breathing. They shared the same dreamy atmosphere, shadowy and still, the dreadful brightness banished. Janice lit a low light in the living room, because the darkness and stillness frightened her too.

 

“—Tell your doctor friend I’m sorry and I didn’t mean it,” Kay said.

 

“I will,” Janice said.

 

Kay pushed the jar of molasses across the table. “You’re pale, Janice,” she said. “This’ll get your blood sugar up.”

 

They scooped molasses out of the jar with their fingers and took long pulls of the lukewarm tea.

 

“You look a little better, Kay.” There was a thread of color in her cheeks.

 

“I feel better now.”

 

Janice took the bottle of whiskey from the top of the refrigerator and poured them each a glass.

 

Kay opened her bag. A compact and a set of keys fell onto the floor. She picked them up. She lit a joint and handed Janice two small crystals. Janice held the glass to the light from the living room while they smoked. Prisms shot onto the wall.

 

“All the other crystals rolled away,” Janice said.

 

Kay looked down at the slanted floor where the signal fires glowed. “So I see,” Kay said. She lifted her glass. “To Saint Alphonsus.”

 

“To Saint Alphonsus.”

 

They drank. Kay inhaled deeply from the joint, coughed, and blew a stream of smoke at the ceiling.

 

Janice dragged the telephone down the hallway to the table and finished her drink as she dialed. “Drew. It’s Janice. Yes, yes. And you? Theo? I don’t know. No, no performances this month. I’m on something like a rest cure. Drew, you see, a friend of mine here cut herself, it was an accident—yes. That’s right,” she said. She tried to keep her voice neutral. “Yes, she’s right here.”

 

She cupped her hand over the receiver. “Kay, what did you cut yourself with?” She ran her thumbnail over the rim of the table as she listened. “An X-Acto blade, Drew, a clean X-Acto blade. She doesn’t think a hospital is a good idea. No,” she said, betraying Kay again, “they look pretty deep.”

 

She wanted to say, Drew, please drive all the way down here from New Haven like you did last year, leaving your wife and kid a note. Theo was taking her out of the city for the weekend. On Friday afternoon he was late for a game of pool and he bicycled up Broadway, against traffic. A delivery truck sideswiped his bicycle and Theo was thrown to the curb. He picked the bicycle up from the asphalt, rode to the pool hall, and sighted the cue stick through the fingers of the arm that had taken the force of the fall. He rode back to Janice’s apartment, the bones of his arm separated at the elbow and his ankles bruised and painful. He lay on her couch all weekend, too discouraged to move. On Sunday evening, Theo called Drew. He said, “There’s some swelling on my arm. Hardly worth mentioning. Details. You want details? Oh, just a little argument with a truck.” Janice heard Drew’s voice rising through the receiver. That night Drew was in Janice’s apartment, helping Theo off the couch, to take him to New Haven and put him in the hospital. Afterward, Theo scorched the cast on his arm over the flame of her gas stove to make his bones heal faster.

 

Janice listened to Drew and knew he would not drive from New Haven for her, as he had for Theo, that she could use his authority as a doctor, but not his presence, to reason with Kay. “No, Saint Vincent’s,” Janice said to him. “I understand. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

 

She hung up the phone. It was safe here; she would have to take Kay away. “We have to get you a tetanus shot and stitches,” she said.

 

“Look.” Kay unwrapped the rags. “Almost no bleeding. I’m afraid of shots. I told you, the X-Acto blade was clean.”

 

Janice swayed over to the couch. Kay had cut herself. There would be consequences. She left the couch and stood against the doorframe and looked at Kay.

 

Kay simply looked back at her and returned to her bandages.

 

“You could get sick,” Janice said. “You could get an infection. Your hands could be damaged.”

 

Kay abandoned the strips of cloth and flexed her hands. She stared at the cuts, shocked, then looked up at Janice. “It was a mistake, a stupid mistake,” she said. “They’ll think I’m crazy. I’m not crazy.”

 

“That’s what hospitals are there for,” Janice said, not quite believing it herself. “Drew said Saint Vincent’s is good, it’s practically in the neighborhood, and we’ll be there in no time.”

 

Kay observed her hands. A thin blue vein ran vertically below each cut, near the base of the palm. “You’ll stay with me?” she said. “You won’t let them keep me there?”

 

“Yes,” Janice said.

 

Kay blew her nose again, rewrapped her wrists, and dipped her fingers into the molasses and licked them clean. She pulled her compact from her bag and touched the exhausted skin under her eyes. “Look at me,” she said. She tossed the compact back. “Oh, hell,” she said, “let’s go.”

 

Outside, the air was murky and windy, with a far-away, blind sky. A mist was rising around the hooded bulbs of the streetlights. Kay and Janice wrapped their coats tightly around themselves and found a cab.

 

Kay held up her wrists. “I’ll cover them with long gloves when I go out.”

 

“Like a masquerade,” Janice said.

 

In the emergency room, Kay’s face, too pale under the fluorescent lights, registered the shock of where they were. Someone took her name and pointed them toward the triage room, where a young nurse efficiently unwrapped the rags and examined the wounds, then bound them with gauze. She went away and left the women in the cold, bright room.

 

“Oh, God, what are we doing here,” Kay said. “I’ll have a record now, I suppose, for anyone to see.” She shielded her chest with her arms.

 

Janice felt sordid and her eyes hurt. The bound wounds were stark in the light; one kept bleeding through the gauze.

 

An attendant walked in. They stood. He spoke to Kay. “A doctor will see you now.” They followed him. In the corridor he turned to Janice. “You’ll have to wait,” he said.

 

“How long?”

 

“Could be an hour, maybe less.”

 

The attendant, large and immovable, stood next to Kay. Her hair had gone wild; blown curls framed her face. “See you later,” she said to Janice. Then she left her, guided by the attendant through a set of swinging doors, where only patients could go.

 

The waiting room was oppressive, full of somber strangers who looked straight ahead and held their faces in their hands. Janice walked outdoors, gulping air. The mist refracted the light from the streetlights, and it lay like shards of glass on the sidewalk. Young men at the intersection revved their car engines. The noise of the traffic on Seventh Avenue hurt her ears.

 

She found a phone booth and called Vera, breathed out when she answered, and told her where she was. In a half-run she cut down Greenwich Avenue and through Washington Square Park, to Vera’s apartment. In the odd pockets of darkness where a streetlight was out she became weightless, bodiless, invisible. She was barely aware of running. She took good care. She chain-locked her door. Theo stayed with her sometimes. He said her bedroom, the thick whitewashed walls, reminded him of Morocco . . .

 

Vera met Janice at her door in a long silk robe and slippers. She poured them each a glass of Cinzano, strong and bitter, and Janice sat with her on the couch. The apartment, lit by candles on the sideboard and the night light that fell through the open windows, was ordered, peaceful. On the coffee table and sideboard, silver and cut-glass objects held the light. Twenty floors below, their neighborhood, all rooftops and water towers, was dark and distant.

 

“You didn’t go to the party,” Janice said.

 

Vera made a dismissive gesture and smoothed her robe over her knees. “That’s a remarkable comb in your hair,” she said.

 

“Oh,” Janice said, touching it with her fingers. “I’d forgotten about it. Kay gave it to me.”

 

“Sit here,” Vera said. “Let me fix it for you.” Vera took the comb and ran her fingers lightly, admiringly, over it. She swept up Janice’s hair. Vera’s hands soothed Janice; under them she became sleepy and content.

 

When Vera was done Janice sat back on the couch, feeling the comb securely in her hair. She took a sip of her drink. “I have to go back to the hospital,” she said. “Kay cut her wrists. She didn’t want to go. I’m not supposed to tell anyone.”

 

“You can tell me,” Vera said.

 

“She came to my apartment and said it was a mistake. I gave her a drink and tricked her into going to the hospital. Then I said I wouldn’t leave her and here I am.” Janice finished her drink and put the empty glass on the coffee table. There was victory in the light and objects and peace of Vera’s apartment, some enormous achievement of will. Janice looked at Vera’s beautiful and tranquil face. “Do you ever panic, Vera?” Janice said.

 

“All the time,” Vera said. She looked into the peaceful room as if she had no understanding of it at all.

 

A psychiatrist met Janice in the waiting room of the hospital and regarded her as he took her name and telephone number for Kay’s file. He introduced himself as Dr. Sanchez and led her to the room where he had left Kay. Her wrists were wrapped, resting one over the other. She held her body motionless, but it was tensed and taut, and she was hardly breathing; she was in hiding, waiting for the danger to pass.

 

The psychiatrist shoved his hands into the pockets of his hospital coat. “The wounds aren’t as deep as they appeared,” he said. “They should heal well. The doctor cleaned and stitched them.” He looked quickly at Kay, then back at Janice. “I told your friend that she must sign in voluntarily for a three-day observation period, or she’ll be signed in involuntarily and could be here a long time. It’s the procedure for all suicide attempts.”

 

Janice sat next to Kay and put her arm protectively over the back of Kay’s chair. Dr. Sanchez sat across from them. Kay turned her head briefly, blindly, toward Janice.

 

Dr. Sanchez wrote on his card and handed it to Janice. “Here’s where she’ll be and you can call for visiting hours. Your friend has been taking quite a lot of amphetamines and tranquilizers, and we’re going to get them out of her system.”

 

Kay was crying. “You don’t know what it’s like. You couldn’t possibly know–”

 

“Your addiction is more psychological than chemical, but you must get rid of it,” Dr. Sanchez said. “We’ll do it slowly and there will be no pain.”

 

Dr. Sanchez stood, Janice stood. He seemed so self-possessed. For a moment she saw the white gauze on her own wrists and wondered what it would be like to live with scars there, to see them every day.

 

Kay reached into her bag and wrote on a piece of paper. “Will you call these people?” she said to Janice. “They’re my neighbors. They can get some things from my apartment. I don’t think you should go there. Ask them to bring the vitamin E oil on my dresser for the cuts.”

  

Janice put her arms around Kay. “They’ll take good care of you,” she whispered.

 

“I knew they’d lock me up.” Kay’s face was blanched, frightened. Her shoulders were folded around her.

 

Dr. Sanchez led Janice out of the room. She hid her eyes past a stretcher being wheeled down the corridor, flanked by policemen, their walkie-talkies crackling.

 

She fingered the comb in her hair. “Is there anything I can do?” she said.

 

“No, not at this point.” He appraised her coldly, reading her face for any error, any trespass, which he seemed to have understood on meeting her in the waiting room she was as capable of as Kay.

 

Janice walked numbly downtown, past the restaurants with their large front windows, and was met by a rush of conversation when their doors were opened. A few taxis slowed to give her a ride. She waved them on.

 

At home, she threw her coat on the couch and shut the light in the living room. In the near-darkness she cleared the molasses and the mugs, the glasses and the bottle of whiskey from the kitchen table. She put the used cotton balls and the bottle of peroxide in the trash and took it downstairs.

 

She lit the end of the joint she had smoked with Kay, inhaled, extinguished it with her fingertips, then slowly chewed and swallowed it. She walked through the rooms, past all the objects she had been entrusted with, some old form of protection, surely; the reminders everywhere of the friends she knew in the city, a large family of unplumbed gifts, appetites. She made a package for Kay, of paper, felt pens, and magazines, and put it in a paper bag. Made a note: call Drew. Made a note: call Kay’s neighbors. Made a note: call Theo.

 

She stood in front of the mirror over the kitchen sink, placed Kay’s comb beside it, and shook her hair from her face. She stretched and drew her body to its full height, arms resting at her sides, fingertips touching her thighs, then arched her body back and lifted her arms parallel to the floor. She felt the fine pull of her muscles, the solidness of her body, of herself in the room, in the city, in the lives of the people she knew. She felt the full weight of herself at all the points of harmony and tension, as she stretched her body out.

 

She lifted the bloody rags from the floor and dropped them in the sink. Then she took off her clothes and placed them next to the rags. Checking the pockets of her slacks, she found the notes from Kay and Dr. Sanchez and one of Kay’s crystals. She tapped the notes into the frame of the mirror. Holding the crystal, she took a box of kitchen matches, struck the matches against the wall, and dropped them one by one into the sink until the fire caught. The fire burned evenly in the semi-dark. The antiseptic smell of the hospital, the demand of Kay’s wrists, the exhaust of the cars on Seventh Avenue made a dark patch underneath the prism on the ceiling, as Janice stood in her boots and underpants, one eye on the fire, make a note: breathe in and out, take a risk, say a prayer.

 

 

 

MaryEllen Beveridge is an honors graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines including The Georgia Review, The South Carolina Review, Crab Orchard Review, Other Voices, Emrys Journal, and 13th Moon. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and her collection was a finalist for the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.